Spaghetti bolognese is the gateway drug for many British home cooks. After mastering the Pot Noodle, the burgeoning foodie is ready for a bigger challenge. The logical next step on that culinary journey is (nominally) via the northern Italian city of Bologna.
Bolognese sauce has been adopted globally by commis chefs making their way in the family kitchen. Using your mother’s kitchenware and ingredients, you’re able to create something edible - and with a slim chance it’s crawling with harmful bacteria.
Bringing together four ingredients feels like real cooking and combining a jar of mass-produced tomato sauce with minced meat, overcooked spaghetti and cheddar cheese is a feat to be proud of for students and Asda mums up and down the country (but mostly up).
The jar born variety is understandably ridiculed by anyone genuinely pretentious about bolognese. Don’t worry, we’ll get there too, but on our way we’ll be recreating this dish and paying homage to those early baby steps in the kitchen.
Dolmio and Ragu are the two mega brands which dominate the UK bolognese sauce market. Dolmio had the most unlikely rise to fame, initially starting out life in Australia with the name ‘Alora’, under the Masterfood brand way back in 1985.
Without so much as a cursory glance towards Italy the sauce got its first European trial in Scotland before being snapped up by Mars, renamed Dolmio and pushed to the remainder of the non-Italian speaking parts of the world.
Ragu has a genuine claim to Italian lineage having been devised by Neapolitan-New York émigrés, Assunta and Giovanni Cantisano, in 1937. The brand is now part of Japanese food manufacturer Mizkan Holdings stable after a 2014 sale by mega-conglomerate Unilever, and sits in the number one spot as the biggest selling spaghetti sauce on the other side of the pond.
The branding is proudly Italian-American, and given its inception at the peak of Italian immigration to the USA, it’s hard to argue this claim.
The early European skirmishes between these brands resulted in most families developing an unwavering loyalty to their favoured sauce. Ours was a Dolmio household. Even at such a young age, I recall Ragu tasting more like tomato ketchup than pasta sauce. Dolmio was somehow more exotic and exciting.
So when deciding which brand to replicate, loyalty comes into play, but it also feels more fitting to start our journey with the inauthentically Italian, rather than the authentically Italian-American.
Like a sherpa preparing his supplies for the trek to Everest’s base camp, I march into the local Sainsbury and buy my first jar of Dolmio in at least a decade.
The jar feels familiar, with the distinctive green top and green label set against the blood red sauce. The image of the recently washed, ripe tomatoes look inviting and the emerging basil leaves add to the feeling of freshness.
The nutritional information reveals Dolmio’s dirty little secret, however. An off the scale sugar content of 6.8g per “serving” belies the fact that the average Dolmio consumer can comfortably polish off half a jar in a single sitting.
Dolmio makes a quick rescue offering to provide not only one of our five veg portions a day, but also an honourable potassium content. I can’t help but think of Borat in his mankini when any mention of potassium is made.
🎵 Dolmio, number one provider of potassium. 🎵
🎵 All other Bolognese sauces have inferior potassium. 🎵
That old Italian stereotype is “Papa”, he’s the grandfather of the extended Dolmio family who grace our primetime TV screens. “When’sa your Dolmio day?” he asks.
Any day ending in a ‘Y’, Papa!
The glazed look in Papa’s eyes is presumably from his glaucoma, brought on by the undiagnosed type 2 diabetes the saccharine sauce has inflicted upon him over the years. In fact, I can’t recall hearing from Papa since the peak of Italy’s coronavirus outbreak. Has anyone checked in on him?
The packaging also sets us a fascinating challenge.
…Why not try adding your family’s favourite veg, or even carrot or chilli to spice things up?
You know you’re close to the pinnacle of flavour when the diminishing returns of adding more ingredients means a carrot is offered as a suggestion to “spice things up”.
As I read to the end of the label, the twists and turns are reminiscent of an Agatha Christie novel and my mouth is watering at the prospect of replicating this sauce.
Recreating the red nectar is more science than art, and there’s just enough information out there to fill a test tube with the right mix of ingredients. Those of you who are less numerically minded - scholars of the liberal arts - may want to skip ahead as we go deep on the numbers.
UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) labelling rules require manufacturers to provide the percentage weight of any ingredient that is either in the name of the product or presented on the packaging. This gives us a solid start with the ingredients that Dolmio wants you to know about.
- Tomatoes (78% or 390g per 500g jar)
- Tomato paste (10% or 50g)
- Basil (0.3% or 1.5g)
Dolmio couldn’t help but proudly announce the basil content on their jar and they may be left regretting such hubris if we’re able to reverse engineer this dish.
We can build on these three ingredients with the nutritional information.
At 3.44g, the salt content is relatively modest for prepackaged food. This equates to just over half a teaspoon.
The real shocker though is the sugar content which weighs in at a whopping 27.2g per 500g. Equivalent to more than 6 sugar cubes!
- Sugar (5.44% or 27.2g)
- Salt (0.69% or 3.44g)
But before we add 27.2g of sugar to our of ingredients, remember that the other ingredients are already pretty sweet.
The tinned tomatoes and tomato paste I’ve already bought in preparation for this dish have 3.4g per 100g and 14.5g per 100g, respectively. It may also surprise you to hear that the humble onion contains 5.6g per 100g.
So our sugar content is going to be 27.2g minus the 13.26g already provided by tomatoes, 7.25g provided by the tomato paste and the as yet unknown amount provided by the onion.
Unfortunately we can’t commit to the added sugar before first determining what the onion brings.
Understanding the onion content is a little tricky, but we can look to the other Dolmio varieties for a steer.
Amongst the range is Dolmio Bolognese Onion and Garlic, and the FSA rules mean that if it’s on the jar, we get to look under the kimono.
In this range the onion content is 6% and garlic 0.4%. This suggests 30g of onion, which doesn’t sound particularly oniony. I’m going to assume the Dolmio Bolognese Onion and Garlic range isn’t actually any more oniony than the regular jar, and this root vegetable love-in is more about the imagery than the taste.
I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt on the garlic though, and I estimate that the Dolmio Original range has slightly less.
- Onion (6% or 30g)
- Garlic (0.3% or 1.5g)
This now allows us to extrapolate the added sugar content.
Added sugar (1% or 5g) (27.2 - 13.26 - 7.25 - 1.68)
We’ve accounted for 479.95 grams out of 500, and things are starting to look a little suspect. With 20+ g to allocate and the weights restricted by our added sugar and salt ranges I can’t see it’s possible to match the recipe from here.
There are a couple of potential permutations at play:
First, the onion content could be higher than 30g. This seems unlikely that the Dolmio Bolognese Onion and Garlic variety contains less onion than Dolmio Original.
Second, Dolmio could be using tomato products with far less sugar than my batch.
There’s legs in this theory given my tinned tomatoes are top of the range and likely to be riper and sweeter. My paste is also premium, double concentrate.
Why would Dolmio bother using the ripest tomatoes and double concentrating in their tomato paste if they could just add more sugar?
I’m going to add 10g (or 10ml) of water to keep my weights on track. I’d rather get the sugar content bang on than risk too high an onion content.
- Water (2% or 10g)
- Added sugar (1% or 5.01g)
I’ll guess the sunflower oil next as it’s in the narrowest range - less than 3.44g of salt, and greater than the 1.5g of basil. I’ll go for the top end of the range at 3g which seems more likely if the long tail is going to conform to Benford’s law.
I wonder if Dolmio even bother to cook their onions during the sauce preparation. It seems like an expensive and unnecessary step for an industrial scale production line, and their onions have a poached finished. It is possible they are gently blanched during the sterilisation process.
The Modified Maize Starch (aka cornflour) is harder to determine. By the way, the “modified” reference doesn’t make this genetically engineered, if it were the packaging would need to tell you. In this context, Dolmio is saying they’ve treated the cornflour in some way to make it better at thickening the sauce.
I’m going to be able to live with a sauce slightly runnier than the real thing so will plump for the off the shelf variety. I’m estimating this to be 4g.
- Cornflour (0.8% or 4g)
- Sunflower Oil (0.6% or 3g)
With 1.8g left to play with it would be easy to overlook the importance of what’s left. However, the ingredient which I anticipate will make amongst the greatest of contributions to the overall flavour is still unaccounted for.
Citric acid will be a key component of this dish and gives us an opportunity to take a detour into some of the fundamentals of flavour.
Good cooking is about balancing flavours and building up aromas. Flavours are provided by sensors in the mouth and aromas by sensors in the nose. You can think of the flavours as the foundational building blocks which allow us to deliver our aromas. Sweetness is one of these foundational flavours and the recipe as it stands was leading us towards some shoddy foundations.
Sourness, as provided by the citric acid in Dolmio, provides the much needed balance to prevent the dish tasting overly sweet.
The list of foundational flavours seems to be added to fairly regularly these days. Sweet, sour, salty and bitter were long believed to be the full squad, but the mysterious “umami” (also known by its less mysterious moniker “savouriness”) was also called up to the mouth ‘A Team’.
There’s also an impressive ‘B Team’ in the form of pungency (aka spiciness), coolness, numbness, astringency, metallicness, calcium, fat taste, heartiness, temperature and starchiness.
We’ll look to cover some of the B Team another day. However, for now our special guest star sourness makes its presence known in our ingredient list in the form of citric acid.
- Acidity regulator (Citric Acid) (0.2% or 1g)
The last two ingredients are parsley and the mysterious ‘herb’. This final reference annoyed me enough to do some further digging. If this ingredient was the secret to “success” I would look pretty silly by missing it.
Luckily, Australia offers an answer. Presumably different countries have different rules about how far you can misdirect the consumer to protect your brand, and although the recipes are slightly altered down-under, we can relate herb to common-or-garden black peppercorns.
I’m going to have a difficult time with the final measurements. I don’t have weighing scales with sub 5g precision as I’m not a drug dealer. I’ll be measuring these ingredients by the pinch.
- Parsley (0.06% or 0.3g)
- Black peppercorn (0.05% or 0.25g)
So the final ingredients break down as:
- Tomatoes (78% or 390g)
- Tomato Paste (10% or 50g)
- Onion (6% or 30g)
- Water (2% or 10g)
- Added Sugar (1% or 5.01g)
- Cornflour (0.8% or 4g)
- Salt (0.69% or 3.44g)
- Sunflower Oil (0.6% or 3g)
- Basil (0.3% or 1.5g)
- Garlic (0.3% or 1.5g)
- Citric Acid (0.2% or 1g)
- Parsley (0.06% or 0.3g)
- Pepper (0.05% or 0.25g)
The peak of my Dolmio bolognese consumption was in the early 90’s when British mad cows were being slaughtered for breakdancing in the pen. Mince was soon banned in our house. At least until my mother realised real cooking on a weeknight was too hard without it.
Turkey mince was offered as a tentative first step back into the world of convenience dinners. Inevitably the insipid taste soon led us back to those luscious red and white strands of mangled bovine flesh.
This time, however, it was different. This time it had to be Aberdeen Angus.
This sturdy Scottish tart - apparently too proud to be fed the spines and brain matter of lesser cows - was our defence against the fulmination of her species.
Good mince is as good as the meat it’s made from, and it may just be Aberdeen Angus that prepared me for a lifetime of food snobbery.
To my surprise the Dolmio family also appear to be snobs. Look back at the recipe instructions.
Cut through the marketing babble and UK supermarket mince can generally be divided into 2 categories.
The 500g stuff and the 400g stuff.
The former is mince for the masses and at the bottom end of the range you’re likely consuming literally the bottom end of the cow. It’s fatty and disgusting. You can get some 500g mince varieties which are good, but all the higher quality mince is in the 400g packets. It’s either free-range or cows that get names - and this is what Dolmio wants us to use.
Papa, you pretentious old dog!
So our bolognese mince is going to be the good stuff. I’ve chosen 400g of Waitrose Aberdeen Angus and have opted for the 10% fat variety. Not the leanest on offer but I believe the additional fat content is required to counter the sweetness from the sauce.
The spaghetti is the workhorse of the dish and contributes 40% of its content, so let’s try not to get this wrong. For Spag Bol authenticity, we are going to work with dried spaghetti and there are two main avenues to failure that we want to avoid.
Your first mistake: overcooking the pasta and turning this into spaghetti soup. UK packaging does you no favours here. If the pack says cook for 10 minutes, then it’s likely to need to cook for 8. If it says 9 go for 7, and so on. The pasta should be ‘al dente’ which literally translates to ‘to the tooth’, and means the pasta should have some resistance when bitten into.
What this means practically is that almost all of the “chalkiness” from the centre of the pasta is gone.
Be careful with the cooking time and bear in mind that the pasta continues to cook after being removed from the boiling water, so really we are looking to eject when the pasta is very nearly al dente.
You’ll get this wrong a few times, but each time you get closer you’ll appreciate the taste even more.
Your second mistake: cooking the pasta in a small pan. Don’t cram your spaghetti strands in like battery farmed hens. They need space to move and mingle otherwise the starch from the pasta can’t escape and you’ll get clumps stuck together and cooking at different speeds.
You may have heard of the Italian advice for pasta water to be “salato come il mare” (“as salty as the sea”). I take this advice with, erm.. a pinch of salt. The average salination of the sea is around 3.5%, which is far too salty for cooking pasta.
Heston Blumenthal recommends the 1:10:100 rule. Each 10 grams of pasta needs 100ml of water and 1 gram of salt. That’s a lot of water but also still a lot of salt when you extrapolate. The reasoning for the seasoning is that it’s otherwise hard to get the required amount of salt on the pasta.
Shop bought spaghetti is made by extruding pasta dough through a die with small holes, and periodically cutting the strands to the desired length before drying and packaging. Teflon dies are used for the production of cheap spaghetti, because they’re cheaper to produce. As the teflon is so uniform there will be no imperfections in the tubes and the spaghetti comes out as smooth as a baby’s bottom.
By contrast, an old fashioned bronze die will produce spaghetti with tiny surface imperfections. This may sound sub-optimal but an imperfect pasta surface means the sauce that coats it will cling on. The perfection that comes from imperfection is available in all supermarkets these days. Just look out for “bronze die” on the label and the hyper-inflationary price tag.
Here is a some mesmerising pasta extrusion gif as a reward for making it this far.
I’m going plump for a middle of the range bronze die spaghetti for our spag bol. We’ll be using De Cecco spaghetti, which has a slightly rougher texture than others in this price bracket.
To stay true to the brief it has to be English cheddar cheese. The British treat spag bol cheese like wallpaper. It’s there for a good reason, but it isn’t supposed to catch your attention. If you walk into a room and don’t notice the wallpaper, that wallpaper has done its job. This is naturally a tightrope - too loud and lairy and you’ll notice, too drab and dreary and you’ll notice.
Luckily for our purposes, nondescript English supermarket cheddar is numbered 1-5. It’s enough to make a Frenchman weep, but helps us shoot straight for the ordinary without prior knowledge or tasting notes.
Waitrose Essential Medium Cheddar “3” is what we’ll opt for. The dependable and forgettable tax accountant of cheese.
What our cheese lacks in personality it more than makes up for in bulk. It’s important to use a coarse grater and to grate until your arm hurts. Then switch arms and keep going before you start to feel it in your abs. Stop when you’ve created a yellow Everest, or have started grating your palms. Whichever comes first. Alternatively, the same cheese is available already grated. The floor sweepings from the giant cheese factory save us from brutal arm ache.
Winning at life!
The cheese is the vital last component which brings a perfect harmony to the dish and delivers the much needed hit of saturated fat.
Imagine being sent back 4,000 years to visit the Neolithics of the British Isles and presenting them Spag Bol loaded with Cheddar cheese. The combination of protein, carbs and fat would satisfy the spear chucking savage for days, and you would be revered as a god.
No wonder Spag Bol has conquered the modern world.
As you might expect, there’s not a great deal of cheffery required to bring this all together.
The sauce can be prepared in advance, it’s hard to get the mince wrong and the cheese requires nothing more than a strong arm.
Admittedly good spaghetti is difficult to the uninitiated but follow the advice above and you’ll either succeed or learn.
Plating requires a wide shallow bowl. Place the spaghetti in the bowl, then push out from the middle to create a well. Ladle the sauce into the well and top with cheese.
Serve with a £5 bottle of red wine from your local Cost Cutter.